John MacLeod, operations manager of Hull, Massachusetts’ Municipal Light Plant, stands inside the tower of Hull Wind I, a Danish-made 660-kilowatt Vestas turbine that has the distinction of being the first commercial-scale windmill to go online anywhere on the U.S.‘s eastern coastline. It’s also, if you want to get technical, the first commercial-scale turbine in suburbia, and the first within walking distance of mass transit—in this case, a ferry line.
MacLeod is a big man, but he has plenty of headroom inside Hull Wind I, whose 164-foot-tall tower casts a shadow over the football field at Hull High School. A ladder at ground height leads straight up into blackness. The room is full of the computers that operate the turbine, lots of important-looking controls, and an “emergency stop” button we visitors have to be careful not to bump.
A digital readout offers the speed of the 154-foot-diameter rotor (28.7 revolutions for minute) and the turbine’s generated power since it was installed in December of 2001: 5,052,741 kilowatt hours. That’s in excess of five million kilowatts, more than enough reason for Hull to hold a celebration honoring the turbine. The town is so pleased with its wind power generation that it’s adding a second, much bigger unit.
MacLeod gestures out past Windmill Point across the bay, with the city of Boston visible in the distance. “We intend to have 100 percent renewably generated power in Hull,” he said. “Our next step is the installation of a 1.8-megawatt turbine at the town landfill, which we hope to have up and running by the end of the summer. Then, by 2008, we want to install four offshore turbines totaling 12 megawatts.”
There are 40 towns in Massachusetts that have municipally owned electric utilities, a situation that is ideal for public wind power. Towns like Hull can generate a kilowatt of electricity for 3.4 cents, but because of production tax credits and tradable renewable energy certificates (RECs), it takes in 6.3 cents. “It’s a cash cow,” MacLeod said. The electricity generated goes straight into the town’s own grid, replacing power that would cost eight cents per kilowatt hour if it were purchased in the energy market.
“We get the financial benefit, plus because it’s a green source of energy the turbine becomes a focus of goodwill for the town,” says Hull selectwoman Joan Meschino. Everyone in town will tell you that the wind turbine has not killed a single bird, at least according to the regular checks by the town’s science students. Neighbors are supportive, too, and you can hardly hear the turbine even when you’re standing right under it.
Given the numbers, it’s not surprising that many towns in the state are looking at municipal wind power. Also visiting Hull was Kevin Greely, a member of the town of Arlington’s board of selectmen. Arlington, near Cambridge and 26 miles from Hull, has hillsides that supporters think can generate enough wind to support a turbine. “It’s impressive what they’ve done here in Hull,” Greely said. “We want to move forward, and our next step is a wind analysis to see if a project is feasible.”
Bill Ford, manager of Ipswitch’s municipal electricity plant, says his town has already done a wind assessment, and results showed promising 11.5-mile-per-hour winds. The town is planning to install a 1.5-megawatt turbine, with operations set to begin in 2006. “I’ve gotten nothing but positive comments on our website and from people who stop me on the street,” Ford said. “Dozens have come up to me to say they’re supportive.” His experience is in sharp contrast to the reception shown the 130-turbine offshore Cape Wind Project. In Hyannis, a vocal group of opponents under the banner of the well-heeled Alliance to Save Nantucket Sound is pulling out all the stops. The alliance has powerful allies in Senators Ted Kennedy and John Warner, Governor Mitt Romney, and other prominent politicians. Lawsuits are planned if the Army Corps of Engineers grants Cape Wind an operating permit. That process was recently delayed even further, since the Environmental Protection Agency has called for additional environmental review. The first report is “inadequate,” argues the agency.
The Hull project would never have happened were it not for the dedicated work of volunteers Andrew Stern (who passed out t-shirts and buttons that read “Hull-E-Luia! I Visited the Windmill in Hull, Mass.”) and Malcolm Brown, a retired philosophy professor and member of the Hull Municipal Light Board. Brown sums up what makes Hull Wind work: “The Hull experience shows it is easier to win approval for wind projects if the benefits are enjoyed close to home, flowing to the local residents transparently and directly. This way the project is ours, not theirs. We’re the investors and we’re the beneficiaries.”